Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

Advertisements

Meru


On the shark's fin.

On the shark’s fin.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.

Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.

Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.

Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.

That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.

The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.

This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.

The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.

The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.

This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.

This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima

Force Majeure (Turist)


There's no business like snow business.

There’s no business like snow business.

(2014) Dramedy (Magnolia) Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Brady Corbet, Jakob Granqvist, Franco Moscon, Malin Dahl. Directed by Ruben Östlund

We never know how we’ll react in any given situation. We imagine, we hope we’ll react with courage and compassion but the truth is there’s a good chance we’ll act to save our own skins rather than someone else’s when push comes to shove. It’s not necessarily a horrible thing but it can cause those around us to reconsider their image of who we are.

Tomas (Kuhnke) and Ebba (Kongsli) are taking a ski vacation in the French Alps with their adorable kids Harry (V. Wettergren) and Vera (C. Wettergren). It’s definitely a much-needed trip; Tomas is a bit of a workaholic whose ear seems permanently glued to his cell phone. This is a chance to let the cares and worries of day to day life melt away and for him to reconnect with his family. Thus far, everything seems to be working.

They’re eating lunch on the terrace of their ski resort one afternoon when an avalanche begins. At first, it’s no cause for alarm. After all, the resort has been purposely setting them off on a regular basis, the days and nights punctuated by soft explosions triggering downfalls of snow to relieve the pressures of an excessive snowfall on the trails. You’d think that they’d be used to it by now.

But the deadly avalanche continues to approach and Ebba begins to feel uneasy. Something is wrong. “Nonsense,” says Tomas full of masculine know-it-all-ness. They’re perfectly safe. Still it gets closer and closer and people begin to nervously rise to their feet. Then as it becomes apparent that it’s not going to stop, the panic begins. People begin to run off the terrace and Ebba goes to grab her children and carry them to safety except they’re too heavy, she can’t lift them and before anything can be done, the avalanche is upon them.

Everything is white. As things come back into focus, Ebba realizes that she and her children are all right. The avalanche must have petered out just before colliding with the resort. All they’d been hit by was the avalanche “smoke,” the fine powder that rises from the surface of the snow. Shaken, the family continues eating their meal, not knowing what else to do.

Everyone’s all right and that’s the important thing, right? But not to Ebba. Her husband abandoned her and her children, leaving them to save himself. He needs to come clean and admit it. Tomas, however, doesn’t see it that way. That’s not how it happened. He refuses to come clean. This becomes stuck in Ebba’s craw. She needs him to own up. She needs to hear him admit that he panicked. She picks at him like a scab.

On the other end, he can’t admit it. It’s just not possible. To do so would be to admit that everything he is as a man is lacking. That he failed to protect his family, one of the most basic instincts that there is in the masculine ego. It’s unthinkable. So the immovable object collides with the unstoppable force and the marriage of Tomas and Ebba suddenly becomes vulnerable.

This is Sweden’s entry into the foreign language film category of the Oscars and quite frankly, it’s a good one. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t end up on the short list when the announcements come out next month. This isn’t a movie you can standardize in a single category. It’s essentially the story of an unraveling marriage depicted in the style of a thriller. As an audience, you’ll feel like you were at a couple’s party and you walked in on them having a vicious argument in the bedroom. If there were Oscars given for the use of awkward silences, this would win hands down.

Kuhnke and Kongsli play their roles with an easy familiarity that mimics that which exists in real couples who have been together for years and now know each other better than they know themselves. There are few surprises in the routines of everyday life and while Ebba feels more than a little neglected, Tomas is completely oblivious that there’s a problem. His ego won’t let him admit to it.

Not that Ebba is a saint. She is a bit of a nag and can be cold and critical. She has a streak of self-centeredness all her own. Her need to validate her point that her husband failed her becomes consuming; looking at the relationship from afar it is clear that both characters would benefit from letting go of the incident but neither one is built that way. As friends get pulled into their escalating competition, it certainly looks like one of them is going to break.

The avalanche sequence is handled with some CGI but mostly practical effects and is one of the film’s highlights. Can’t say the same thing about the ending which is confusing and seems tacked on and unnecessary. In fact, the movie seems a bit long and might have benefitted from more time looking at the family and less at their friends, who are drawn into an argument over how they’d react in a similar situation which leads to bad feelings between them as well. Those darn Swedes.

While the situation is an extraordinary one, kudos to Östlund for keeping the characters real. They react in ways that aren’t necessarily shining examples of forbearance and in doing so channel every one of us. If you can’t relate to Tomas and/or Ebba, you haven’t been alive long enough to appreciate the subtleties of long-term committed relationships or the fallibility of human beings.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling plot handled in a realistic manner. Some fine performances by the leads. Avalanche sequence is nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Ending is unsatisfying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity as well as sexual situations and some occasional foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The children of Tomas and Ebba in the film are played by a real life brother and sister.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Outdoors
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild